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Writing Book Reviews – Part One

December 6, 2011

I’m not sure if there is a technical name for the material that follows the main articles in an academic journal. Flip the journal past the last headline article and you often find a selection of brief dispatches, opinion pieces, organizational news, and/or book reviews.

Typically, unless you’re looking at a top-selling journal, the book reviews are reader submissions, not staff pieces. And they’re usually not peer-reviewed. In fact, writing a book review is often the best way for an up-and-coming academic to contribute to the discipline.

Since book reviews are in the back of the journal and they don’t usually earn their authors cover-page billing, it’s tempting to pass them off as unimportant. Bad idea. We’ve all read our share of thoroughly time-wasting — or worse, pathetically uninformed — book reviews. Besides adding little to the discipline, poorly-written book reviews earn disrespect from all authors (not just the author whose book you’re critiquing) and show how little you care about the topic. Write them well or don’t write them. Or, as we say at Letter Perfect Copyediting, if your paper’s worth writing, it’s worth writing it well!

There are two main types of book reviews: (1) general reviews that often get published in book review-only journals and newspapers (and now news-websites), and (2) academic reviews that usually appear in the back of research journals. The rest of this installment will focus on the general reviews and hopefully I’ll write a piece on academic reviews by the end of the week.

Let’s take a look at a top-of-the-line general review of Pinsker Kaganovich’s (a.k.a. Der Nister) Regrowth: Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After Nazi Occupation (trans. Erik Butler). The review is written by Naya Lekht, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures.

The beauty of this book review is that Lekht’s style is more storytelling than description. She talks about the author’s background and legacy and draws the reader into the text with an engaging few paragraphs about why this book was written and why the topic is relevant to readers today.

As her story continues, Lekht selects a few of the most notable features of the author’s style and places them in their historical context. One of the short stories tells of Der Nister’s wartime nationalism; another reflects his “powerful call for vengeance.” This is where description really helps fill out the story, as an aid to the story-telling. Even when Lekht describes the author’s word choice and imagery she ensconces them in the story of the Der Nister’s struggle with his times and his literary development.

 The lesson: when you sit down to write a general book review, don’t think about it as a book review. Dry reviews are a thing of the past, now that anybody can get a decent gist of the book and its quality by looking up the reviews on Amazon.com. To make it interesting, to gain the readers’ attention, you have to tell an engaging story.

The reviewer sampled here praised Der Nister’s book and offered no criticism. In a general review, this is acceptable, but only if you really love the book. Otherwise, be sure to point out its flaws, but do so within the context of the story. How might you explain the author’s biases and flaws? What did the author miss that readers like yourself want? Why might the publisher have used a shabby print format?

The author, book, and publisher can all be characters in your story and it might require some research to develop them responsibly. But done properly, a well-written book review can engage the reader from start to finish and can build the reviewer’s reputation as a thoughtful contributor to the knowledge of their field.

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